Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Punisher (1989)

The Punisher presents an interesting meeting point between the "super hero" and the "one man vs. the world" movies that came into prominence in the early 1970s. Unlike most comic heroes, the character was originally presented as a villain to fight Spider-Man whose most noteworthy feature was the world's coolest bandolier. The Punisher films have similarly veered back and forth between being "comic book movies" in the goofiest sense of the word and regular "action movies" in the also pretty goofy sense of the word. The first film in the Punisher oeuvre, perhaps due to its release date that occurred towards the tail end of the action movie's high point and a decade before anyone cared about "comic book movies," finds itself on the "action" end of the spectrum. And while it's decidedly a B-action movie, more Blind Fury than Die Hard, it's actually pretty entertaining. Plus, Dolph Lundgren is pretty believable as a one man army.

Movie poster or high school graduation photo?

Our story begins with a clunky exposition-y news report that feels like it's straight out of Dark Knight Returns, shoulder pads and all. We're told that Frank Castle has been presumed dead for the past five years, then the second story is reminding the citizens of... somewhere (the character is set in New York but this was filmed in Australia and nothing looks even vaguely like New York. For one thing, where are the huge black men with boom boxes?) that 150 mobsters have been murdered in the past five years. While this is a pretty clunky way of getting viewers to speed, especially since slowly crawling text had already been perfected, it is pretty great at launching us straight into the story. As lame as 99.9% of super hero origin stories are, the Punisher is one where it's especially clear from the start that his family being murdered is just an excuse for him to murder hundreds of mobsters, so kudos to this movie for not even bothering to give us 30 minutes of mopey Dolph Lundgren dyeing his hair. Anyway, this leads to a mobster being interviewed, who doubts the existence of the Punisher. Again, he's murdered 150 guys at this point.

This brutal revenge film features Punisher using an RC truck carrying
liquor to lure a wino informant into the open. Yes, really.

We almost immediately get a nice little action set-piece as the mobster goes to his home and his goons are killed one by one without ever showing the Punisher's face; we just see his arm hang a goon and his boot kick a guy over a balcony. He kills the boss mobster and this feels like it would be the conclusion of a much worse movie, but we're not even ten minutes in! The real story, it turns out, is a Yakuza boss makes a move to take over ____ City's crime scene, taking advantage of the power vacuum created by the Punisher killing a hundred guys. At first, Punisher seems cool with the Yakuza killing more mobsters for him, showing that he hasn't really thought this "Punishing" thing through. However, when Punisher discovers the Yakuza boss has kidnapped innocent and irritating mobster children, he decides to make room in his busy schedule to karate kick tiny Yakuza guys.

There's a lot of riding a motorcycle through sewers... that can't be good for the paint job.

At the end of the day, The Punisher is a pretty entertaining B-movie about revenge and the late 80s/early 90s completely irrational fear of Japan taking all our best mafia jobs. Little did we know that Russians would end up taking all those jobs after the fall of the Berlin Wall. It's about as brainless as all these revenge action movies, and Punisher's actual reasons for getting involved start off pretty flimsy until his ex-partner gets involved, and it has a couple of sub-plots that quite literally go nowhere, probably a result of New World Pictures' financial troubles. It's even the perfect B-movie length: it ends abruptly at the 89 minute mark. But for all that, I did enjoy myself. There's a few good one liners, the action scenes are well put together, and the plot has solid momentum behind it. I wish the villains were better, but we get a pretty generic Yakuza lady and a few mobsters straight out of central casting. Dolph does a pretty good job being scary and not talking much, which is really all you need to play a vengeance-seeking sociopath. Louis Gossett Jr plays the cop who is Punisher's old partner, and he does a solid enough job with a really weak part.

Punisher tries to be reassuring.

The movie was known to be particularly terrible in the comic book community, probably because it's not really a comic movie. Punisher in this movie doesn't use much in the way of weapons, relying on martial arts for extended sequences, and most notably, he doesn't have a cool bandolier that looks like the teeth that match his skull shirt. He doesn't even have a skull shirt! We don't see a single character from Punisher's famous supporting cast like, uh... that one guy Garth Ennis created in 2001. It doesn't even include useless little references that only comic book nerds get! The nerve!

It's an entertaining enough little diversion with a surprisingly decent script and above-average direction, as the director went on to be a hugely successful editor and the writer wrote and directed major projects for Disney, including Remember the Titans and Prince of Persia. Honestly I probably just like it because I'm completely sick of comic book origin stories.

Memorable Quotes:

Franco: There's a limit to revenge, you know.
The Punisher: I guess I just haven't reached mine yet.

Lady Tanaka: You Americans have a great capacity for violence, but it's wild, unfocused. You will learn.

The Punisher: You're a good boy, Tommy. Grow up to be a good man. Because if you don't... I'll be waiting.

Arbitrary Rating:

150 murders out of a possible 300.


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